The future of open data
Data, and how best to use it, has become on of the key moral, political and policy questions for modern Government. Whether it’s Julian Assange dumping reams of US State Department data onto the internet or the NHS trying to build a more accurate portrait of need by using our personal health records – information and its use, ownership and legitimacy affects us all.
The dilemma for governments, in the myriad of areas where they accumulate potentially useful data, is often presented as a tension between transparency and efficiency – as if the decision to be made is between sharing information and using that information. But the truth, complicated and messy as it might well be, is that both are necessary and neither is as easy as it looks.
Government does need – as Tim Kelsey, the Government’s Information Tsar said in a recent speech at Demos – to encourage openness and information sharing with the public. Innovation, ideas and the spotting of anomalies can be provided by an army of armchair auditors using government data to make government work better. And a culture of transparency should help us to answer the eternal question of who is watching the watchers – transparency is not the corollary of efficiency but an aide to it and a safeguard against overmighty bureaucrats.
But government cannot – however good its intentions – abdicate responsibility for its own data and simply expect the public to fill in the dots for them. If we want to use data to transform services, rather than simply to hold them to account, we need to be investing in the skills that will enable people to really get to grips with data and to make it work for them. Eighty-five per cent of British people have maths skills only developed up to GCSE level, quantitative skills and analytical understanding are skill-gaps well observed in our workforce. If Britain is to become a nation of public service transformers armed with government data, then it will need the skills and the confidence to become so. Government cannot just release its data, it has to release the talent to use it by boosting mathematical ability.
Today Demos publishes a major new piece from Charles Leadbeater, exploring the potential of Government’s commitment to transparency and arguing that – in order for it to prove transformative – it must go further. Data used well can make a huge difference in terms of efficiency, accountability and transformation – but only if we have the skills to use it.